It never gets any easier to watch, to absorb the horrifying reality depicted in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Anne’s story, and felt both worry and awe. Each time, it rattles a nervous bone, and by lights down, it strengthens my spine a little more. And yet, the fear of redundancy, of complacency or, worse, irrelevance lingers.
So when a new production of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s stage adaptation of Frank’s posthumously published diary comes your way, like the beautiful one staged at the Lancaster Opera House, you give it another chance. You lean into it, to listen to Anne’s life, and not to her death.
About how ordinary a girl she was before her family fled Germany for the seemingly safer Netherlands. About how beautifully loud she was about life, on the page and in the quarantined annex in which she and eight other souls hid in silence from the Nazis.
About how she just wanted to be kissed by a boy, and ride bikes with her girlfriends, and chat with her sister, and argue with her mother.
Wendy Kesselman’s adaption of Goodrich and Hackett’s play puts more handprints on Frank’s insular, intimate source material. Sometimes this clouds the portrait. But thanks to a wonderful portrayal by Mira Steuer, filled with spirit and verve, we have clarity. Here we meet Annika.
The talented Steuer, a high school freshman, is tonally perfect as the precocious 15-year-old. She plays her age above all other traits, which means we see Frank as she might actually have been: scared and confused, as most were at that time, but also passionate, easily sparked, hormonally charged.
Even in David Dwyer’s detailed set and Nicholas Quinn’s impressionistic lighting, Steuer’s emotional base coat is the production’s most refreshing quality.
An attentive and close ensemble pays extra attention to many raw moments. As parents Otto and Edith Frank, Caitlin Baeumler Coleman and Stan Klimecko are fearful caregivers. They hold onto their children for strength even when their children need it more. How they don’t crumble is anyone’s guess. Fine performances from both, despite Kesselman’s cursory character development. Also underwritten is older sister Margot, played suitably by Louise Koessler.
David C. Mitchell and Josie DiVincenzo give keenly performative portrayals as the van Daans, whose family shares the space. Tempers flare in close quarters, with one bathroom to share, meager food provisions and days filled with required stillness. Mitchell and DiVincenzo are well tuned for flare-ups, and the pent-up pathos that follows.
As Miep Gies and Mr. Kraler, the Dutch who help secure the Franks and van Daans’ hiding place, Jessica Leigh Tokarsi and David Butler leave something to be desired, perhaps a sense of urgency or agency in their own punishable risk. Both feel two-dimensional in the few scenes they have.
Ian Michalski plays Mr. Dussel, a naturally uneasy dentist who joins the annex as a burden and obligation. Michalski is made for these kind of roles, where he can fly a flag of peculiarity and panache, and give a perfectly unique performance. Watch closely.
Director David Bondrow has done good work here, despite a rocky ending that failed to incite the terror of the play’s climax. He creates beautiful tableaux throughout the piece at fitting moments, such as around the Hanukkah menorah.
But it’s his incisive approach to intermission that pinched my evening’s biggest nerve. I’ll leave it a secret so you can discover it as we did on opening night, first with silence, then with pause, and ultimately, with deference. To stand witness to history as it happened, in the real moments between catastrophes and diary entries.
This visit was worth the effort.
“The Diary of Anne Frank”
3 stars (out of four)
Adaptation of the well-known diary of a young girl hiding from the Nazis with her family, newly adapted by Wendy Kesselman. Presented at the Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster, through Feb. 18. For tickets, go to lancopera.org or call 683-1776